Sky high ambitions

Sky high ambitions

Medical emergencies and aviation have both played a large part in the life of Hanna Sebright – and that was before she became chief executive of the Midlands Air Ambulance Charity.

In 1994, Hanna Sebright’s two-year old son, Rory, was hit by a car driven by a speeding teenager. He survived, but the accident seemed to trigger serious health problems. “Rory became extremely ill a year later,” recalls Hanna, “having seizures and all sorts of things, eventually losing a kidney.

Doctors never confirmed the cause of his illness, but the car hit him on the same side of his body as the kidney, and mother’s instinct told me that was the start of his episodes.”

At one stage during his illness, Rory was transferred to a hospital by air ambulance and, although it was more than 15 years ago, that traumatic experience was one which Hanna admits could well have fixed itself in her mind, eventually playing a part in her becoming chief executive of the Midlands Air Ambulance Charity.

“Life’s experiences have a funny way of coming together,” she agrees, “and it’s certainly true to say that I’ve had my fair share of ill-health experiences, and links to aviation. Who knows the way these things mix and influence your life.”

Rory, by the way, is now aged 20, has grown to six foot six, and “is doing really well”, as is Hanna’s second son Angus, aged 17. They both still live with her at home near Bath, but the ordeal of almost losing Rory still plays on Hanna’s mind.

“It was such an awful situation for a young mum to find herself in. There’s guilt, things are said, and it had a disastrous effect on my first marriage. I regret that. It’s challenging for a single parent mum to develop a successful career, support a family and keep an eye on the kids. But they’ve turned out great lads.”

Hanna fell seriously ill herself last year, and was eventually diagnosed with acute infective discitis – a spine infection that can result in mobility or speech problems if not treated quickly and correctly. She spent ten days in hospital, and had daily intravenous drips direct to her heart for seven weeks after returning to work. “When you’re younger, you think you are invincible,” says Hanna.

“Now, I’m just happy to be here and lucky to have a job where I wake up in the morning and look forward to work. I’m glad to be alive, and it all makes me love my boys more than ever.”

Hanna was born at RAF barracks in Ely, Cambridgshire, her dad being a Squadron Leader navigator on the Hercules and other aircraft. It meant the first 14 years of Hanna’s life were on RAF bases all over Europe. Now aged 49, Hanna has been twice divorced, and her current partner is a former RAF pilot.

“It was his RAF medical training that probably saved my life,” says Hanna, “as he spotted my symptoms and knew the treatment I needed. It was meant to be.”

Other coincidences of life include seven years with British Airways and then a 12-year career in health – starting in marketing, then becoming an entrepreneur and ending with a fall-out, legal battle and eventual out-of-court settlement with business guru Alan Sugar.

Hanna became chief executive at the Midlands Air Ambulance in the summer of 2009 – just as the recession started to threaten the performance of most charities. Previously called the County Air Ambulance Trust, there was also a real confusion of brands when Hanna arrived.

“When I joined it was still an NHS charity,” says Hanna. “It was affiliated to West Midlands Ambulance Service, and had grown organically. But it needed specialist skilled staff to take it forward in the new restricted economy – staff with commercial acumen, strategic players with financial backgrounds, able to set budgets, income and expenditure.

“And it needed fund-raising staff who understood sales and commerce. It needed huge restructuring and I had to move like the wind as it became clear it would become a big financial problem if not addressed quickly.”

By November 2009, Hanna had brought in new people to help restructure the charity’s lottery. This transformed an “archaic, non-workable” system with just 400 members into a popular scheme with 30,000 members, bringing in £1m a year.

She also reinstated the charity’s traditional tin collections, making sure shops like Tesco and big service stations were manned by badged, uniformed collectors. Tins now contribute between £30,000 and £40,000 a month. Another important area was the charity’s legacy portfolio, historically providing 40% of income.

“This badly needed a proper, qualified legacy office working on the administration,” says Hanna. “And with the name change, we needed to re-promote the new name and brand to solicitors in the area.” Hanna’s action worked. In 2009, the Midlands Air Ambulance Charity had revenues of £5.6 million; by 2012, this increased by 25% to £7m.

“And that’s during the worst economic recession,” she points out. “We worked assiduously on finance, diversifying so we weren’t over reliant on any one area.” Midlands Air Ambulance now operates more than 3,000 missions a year, serving communities in Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, Shropshire, Staffordshire, Worcestershire and the West Midlands. But one of the biggest jobs Hanna faced was taking the charity out of the NHS and restructuring it as an independent charity limited by guarantee, with a new board of trustees.

“This was crucial from a business point of view to allow the charity to grow,” says Hanna. “When a charity is part of a public sector organisation, it’s very difficult for people to treat it as an independent entity and to attract staff with the right skills.

“The charity’s first 18 years were OK, but with no independent budget it was impossible to plan and it would have struggled to remain sustainable. I needed to understand exactly what income was coming from where, and what costs were going where. There were aircrew, aircraft and all that involves without a clear handle of what was paying for what. Midlands Air Ambulance absolutely needed to become its own living, breathing entity so it could best use public donations to save lives.”

This all meant a difficult couple of years of full-on change, with all the problems that creates for an organisation set in its ways. But Hanna is delighted with the results. “It’s been a wonderful outcome,” she says. “We have fantastic partnerships with the NHS, and great collaboration and relationships with the ambulance service so we can work together and deliver the very best trauma care.”

We’re chatting in the Midlands Air Ambulance headquarters, in an incongruous industrial unit squeezed between a bed showroom and a car parts firm on a factory centre in Brierley Hill, in the Black Country. The charity’s three helicopters fly from bases at RAF Cosford, Strensham Services on the M5 and Tatenhill airfield, near Burton on Trent, each carrying a pilot, paramedic and doctor, with all the latest life-support equipment. Their maximum flying time to a hospital from anywhere in the region is less than 15 minutes.

“All my crew are NHS employees,” says Hanna, “with all the training and protocols that the NHS provides. What they need from me is the funding to support increased specialist training to improve their skills at mobile trauma care.

“For example, we now have 100% doctor cover on all missions – that’s doctors on board every flight, a significant improvement. By carefully planning our bases, the aircraft get to patients within ten minutes, and we can demonstrate through data that the extra investment in training makes a difference to saving lives and in lengths of patient-stay in hospitals. All this has happened because being independent means we can choose where to put our investment.”

A crucial recent investment decision was a £37m procurement plan for a new fleet of helicopters. “Now we’re independent, we’ve made our own financial decision to buy one aircraft and lease two. By year seven of this plan, when the aircraft is bought, overheads significantly reduce, and yet the helicopter will still have another ten years of life. This sort of strategic decision-making will help to secure long-term financial stability.

"That was a commercial buying decision we just weren’t able to make in the past. Most charities these days say they need strong business acumen without losing their original charitable objectives. That’s what I meant by the need to bring in commercial skill-sets, people able to manage money, with confidence to know where to cut and where to draw income.

“Basically, I’m talking about control. I came in with a fresh pair of eyes from the independent sector, with experience of having run my own business, meeting challenges and making decisions you have to make every day, and all the stresses that come with that. I want value for money, I want to drive growth and I’m a strategic planner – looking forward to sustain the charity in three, five, seven years and beyond.”Although displaying hard-nosed commercial skills, Hanna also admits to learning an enormous amount:

“It’s been fantastic in terms of teaching me about the increasing demand for air ambulance services across the UK, and the great government interest there is in emergency services collaborating. We are now well-placed to support the police, the ambulance service and hospitals in the work that we do.”

As well as her main job, Hanna now sits on the board of the national Air Ambulance Association, helping to raise the national profile of the whole UK network. But what drives her to continue with such hard work, especially after being so ill herself last year? “Delivery,” she declares.

“Doing a good job, making a difference and then evidencing it. I’ve learned how well loved this charity is, and how generous-hearted people are towards it. I love my job with a passion and, importantly, I’m happy here.”